“‘In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
The troubles of this world are inevitable, and while wonderful comfort is drawn from the second part of this verse, the reality that Jesus acknowledges is that we all carry burdens—and sometimes very heavy ones.
In Galatians 6 Paul declares that there is a responsibility for those who are spiritual to seek out those who are staggering under the weight, and to offer a shoulder to share the load.
It’s the burden of sin that Paul offers as his example, but the instruction surely applies to those carrying burdens of many kinds. Life’s curve balls can tempt us to doubt God’s sovereignty and his goodness, and where doubt digs in, sin often finds an opening. So, with the humility that comes from knowing that tomorrow it could be me, we draw alongside those who are grieving or sick, as well as those who are struggling with blatant sin.
Paul writes, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
He has been urging the Galatians not to subject themselves again to the weight of the law from which they have been set free, and tells them instead to use their freedom to pick up the weight of one another’s burdens. Because, Paul says, this fulfils the law of Christ.
In Galatians 5:14 Paul described the whole law as being fulfilled in one command: “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”, and as Jesus himself would had said: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
So the law of Christ is rooted in love.
Christ is the ultimate burden bearer: as we picture him stumbling under the weight of the cross upon which he would bear the full weight of the wrath of his Father, we might wonder how we can love others as Jesus loved us.
The truth is, this is an act we cannot follow. Only the Son of God could bear the burden of our sin and guilt. But within our God-given limitations, what better way to demonstrate love than to sacrifice our time, energy, comfort and resources to restore those who are in danger of falling?
But at what cost? In pastoral ministry, there is perhaps an inclination towards one of two extremes.
Firstly, there’s self-fulfilment disguised as ‘love for neighbour’.
An unchecked outpouring of time and energy appears so loving. The mobile phone that is constantly on, the pastoral visits that always overrun, the practical help that seems blind to days off.
The chances are this has more to do with my need than theirs—my need to be needed, my need to be affirmed in this role, or my need to soothe my own discomfort at someone else’s pain.
And inadvertently, I’ve stepped into the role of rescuer. Much as I might be trying to point them to Christ, they are looking to me: tangible, ever present, and instantly responsive to their needs.
On the other hand, there’s self-protection in the name of longevity.
At the other end of the spectrum is the pastoral worker with “excellent boundaries” that form a protective barrier. Close relationships, difficult conversations and challenging pastoral situations all take their toll and are to be avoided because ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. I can carry on in this way for many years, protected from burnout… but also a stranger to the joy and vulnerability of taking risks with people and witnessing God at work.
Neither of these extremes fulfils the law of Christ. Both have love for self at the centre. Both are proud and independent.
But there’s a third way: bearing burdens in a way that fulfils the law of Christ.
The law of Christ is love for others. It is a brave and wholehearted Christ-like love, and it is a humble, dependent human love. The Christ-like love strengthens us to bear burdens; the human love reminds us we do nothing in our own strength, and that it could just as easily be us who suffers tomorrow. And so we walk closely with others, we cry with them and we pray with them. Then we take ourselves away and we rest. We pray for strength and gentleness and humility and as the Spirit restores us we do it all over again.
The psalmist sings “Cast all your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you” (Ps 55:22). Ultimately, the Lord is the one who will not let us stumble. But this does not relinquish us from our responsibilities.
When asked about his brother, Cain answered God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. The answer for each of us is ‘yes’.
One of the ways in which God sustains his people is by strengthening and equipping fellow pilgrims with gentleness and humility to restore one another as each of us takes our turn to falter and slip. We offer an arm around the waist, a hand under the elbow, and most importantly a finger in the Bible to point to Christ who has overcome it all.